There’s nothing like having a peppery plate of Pasta alla Carbonara in the hustle and bustle of a chilly autumn day in Rome or savoring a light and aromatic serving of Spaghetti alle Vongole on a lazy summer’s day somewhere along the Mediterranean sea coast in Campania.
Italians know their way around many things, from sports cars and fashion to arts and architecture. Of all things quintessentially Italian, however, if there’s one thing they’re truly famous for everywhere in the world, that’s pasta.
There are well over three hundred varieties of pasta out there and just as many misconceptions about how it’s prepared, served, and eaten. Maybe that’s why, today, we’ll spend some time talking about how Italians like to enjoy their pasta—and what you and I can learn from them for the way we do so in our homes.
So, how is pasta served in Italy?
In Italy, pasta is prepared humbly, in small quantities, with few in-season and locally sourced ingredients. Traditionally, pasta is preceded by the antipasto (appetizer), eaten as the primo piatto (first course), and followed by seafood, poultry, or red meat for the secondo piatto (second course).
This surprises many readers, as it’s very different from the way that pasta is served in the United States (and English-speaking countries in general), where it’s cooked in large quantities, incorporates plenty of protein (in the form of bacon, sausage, or meatballs), and served as the main course.
The fact of the matter is that, in Italy, pasta is not the sole protagonist of a typical dinner, and it’s not intended to make you full. Clearly, this got lost in translation or frankly forgotten over time by Italian restaurants in cities like New York, many of which claim to prepare and serve pasta in a traditional way.
The pasta shapes are briefly boiled in salted water, then finished off with the sauce in the pan and plated. The sauce can be as simple as Aglio e Olio (sautéed garlic in extra virgin olive oil), as zippy as fresh and/or canned tomatoes, or as hearty as grated cheese and pasta water, with or without browned guanciale or pancetta.
A tiny block of hard Italian cheese, such as cow’s milk Parmigiano-Reggiano or sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano, is grated finely over most pasta dishes, excluding seafood (since the aromas and flavors of seafood and cheese are not believed to blend well).
Hard cheeses made from cow’s milk taste creamier and nuttier, so they go well with tomato or pesto sauce. Those made from sheep’s milk are saltier and gamier, so they’re best used in cheese sauces on their own.
That being said, even in Italy, people don’t always have time for a three-course meal (or a four-course one in case, by the time you’re done eating, you still have room for dessert).
On a busy day during the workweek, pasta can also be eaten as a light meal, followed by a mixed salad, known as “insalata,” to assist with digestion.
This can confuse people who don’t live in or haven’t been to Italy as, virtually everywhere else in the world, the salad is eaten before the main course. Italians, as with many other things, do it differently.
Then there’s the art and craft of preparing pasta as modern-day street food. In some Italian cities, where classically-trained cooks have started experimenting with modern-day cooking techniques and open up street food restaurants, you can occasionally spot deep-fried spaghetti balls.
How Long Should Pasta Be Cooked?
Another misconception that many have about pasta is that it should be overcooked. In America, pasta is cooked until it’s soft and mushy. In Italy, it’s boiled in generously salted water for a few minutes until it’s close to being done, then tossed with the sauce in the hot pan and served.
Italian chefs call this technique for preparing pasta al dente, which translates literally as “to the tooth.” Al-dente pasta is tender on the inside but firm to the bite and still bearing a very slight crunch on the outside. When you eat it, it kind of sticks to your teeth.
Many claim that al-dente pasta is not only better capable of holding on to the sauce than overcooked pasta but also easier to digest (since your body takes longer to break it down), and therefore makes you feel less tired after eating it.
Is Pasta Served in a Bowl or Plate?
In less formal settings, such as when having friends and family over to your home or eating at a trattoria, pasta is served in a soup bowl. Formal occasions, such as weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, reunions, require that the pasta is plated.
Contrary to popular belief, spaghetti in Italy is not eaten with a spoon. “Eating spaghetti with a spoon will, at the least, be met with double takes from locals,” executive chef Delia Martina Landwehrmann tells LSG Group podcast’s listeners.
“What’s even worse is cutting it with a knife. Etiquette dictates we only use the fork and the plate. To avoid an awkward bite due to too many noodles being grabbed, it’s best to fork up noodles from the edge of the dish and not in the middle.”
The Typical Italian Four-Course Meal
In Italy, a four-course meal—the kind you’d eat with your entire family on a sunny Sunday afternoon or with friends on a formal weeknight dinner—starts with the antipasto, which stands for “the meal that comes before the meal.”
Served on a platter and savored with a glass of aperitivo (a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine), the antipasto is an entrée that’s intended to brighten up the social setting of a meal and awaken the eaters’ appetite.
The typical ingredients of an antipasto are cured meats (Prosciutto, Pepperoni, Soppressata), hard cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo), soft cheeses (Scamorza, Mozzarella, Taleggio), olives, piquanté peppers, pickled artichokes, and sun-dried tomatoes.
Once the guests are done feasting on the salumi e formaggi (cured meats and cheeses) on the plate, it’s time for the primo piatto, or first course.
Heartier than the antipasto but lighter than the secondo piatto, the primo piatto is almost always a plate of al-dente pasta or creamy risotto. In some parts of Italy, risotto is considered the “classier” choice of the two. In rural areas, you will also see polenta—the Italian equivalent of grits—being served.
The first meal is not intended to fully feed the guests, which is why it consists of roughly 75 grams of pasta or rice.
When it comes to the pasta dish, the shape, sauce, and cooking technique will vary based on what’s traditional in the region. In Rome and its surrounding villages in central Italy’s Lazio region, for example, it’s not uncommon to eat white-sauce pasta dishes such as Pasta alla Carbonara.
Sardinian pasta recipes make use of the island’s hearty sausages and locally-produced ricotta cheese (Sardinia has a little more than 1.6 million inhabitants and approximately 3 million sheep). In contrast, Sicilian pasta is light and centered on seafood.
Secondo Piatto, Contorno, Insalata
Then comes the secondo piatto, or the main course, the staple of any four-course meal in Italy.
The secondo piatto consists mainly of sources of protein, such as seafood (clams, shrimp, squid, octopus, anchovies, sardines), poultry (Chicken Parmigiana, Turkey Bolognese), beef (Bistecca alla Fiorentina), or lamb (fried chops, lamb skewers, meatballs).
Warm vegetables (contorno) and mixed salad (insalata) are often served as side dishes alongside the main course.
A common contorno dish is the Fritto Misto, or fried vegetables such as zucchini, leaks, and artichoke, sometimes together with shrimp, calamari, sardines, and/or anchovies.
The insalata is typically a light salad with leafy greens and cherry tomatoes. Or a Caprese salad consisting of sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, which my little nephew rightfully calls the “pizza salad” (it’s a great way to get kids hooked on eating it!).
Hearty and filling, the main course, unless we’re talking seafood, is traditionally eaten slowly, in good company, and enjoyed with a glass of full-bodied red wine.
Last but not least is il dolce, or the dessert. Whether we’re talking Gelato, Granita, Mascarpone, Meringata, Panna Cotta, Semifreddo, or Zabaglione, desserts are the unsung heroes of Italian cuisine worthy of the attention of anyone who’s captivated by its delicious simplicity.